There are museums in San Diego for every interest, whether you have a passion for history, art, or nature. Most of them (both world-famous and those with a niche following) are family-friendly, but some really go above and beyond when it comes to exhibits and programming for children.

In this post, I’ll share some of my favorite children’s museums in San Diego County that blend education with fun. The options include some traditional museums and some hands-on discovery spaces specifically for younger learners. 

Hopefully, my suggestions will make your next family vacation to San Diego an amazing experience for the teens, tweens, kids, and toddlers in your crew. Before you go, check each museum’s calendar for opening hours and information.

10 Best Museums for Children in San Diego

Not every San Diego museum on this list is solely a children’s museum, but all are kid-friendly. You will visit to enjoy the exhibits, but I encourage you to use these institutions as educational resources year-round, whether you’re a resident or a tourist.

They also offer summer camps, science courses, offsite excursions, and many more opportunities to expose kids (and you) to history, culture, arts, and the environment.

Join their email newsletter lists to stay up-to-date. If you have questions about any of these places, feel free to leave me a comment, and I’ll reply. Also, be sure to check out my huge list of San Diego activities for families, which includes ideas outside of museums.

1. Fleet Science Center

Location: Balboa Park
Address: 1875 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

Two boys spin discs at a hands-on Fleet Science Center exhibit.
Photo courtesy of Fleet Science Center

Fleet Science Center in Balboa Park is a hands-on science museum, where the whole family can get in on the fun. They are highly focused on keeping kids interested in STEM subjects through exhibits but also (usually) robust youth, school, and teacher programs.

There are more than 100 interactive exhibits (plus movies in the IMAX dome theater) and a rotating selection of world-class temporary exhibits about everything from why the grossest stuff in the world exists to explosions.

Of course, adults can participate, and little kids are not left out. Kid City and Little Learner’s Lab are permanent exhibits just for children five and under, and there’s even a play area where babies can learn more about the world through touch and play. Junior Science Clubs are great science activity sessions designed for kids 6-10 years old, and take place twice a month.

I also love picking up unique gifts for kids’ birthdays, ranging from science kits to astronaut ice cream, in the onsite shop.

At-home resources: FleetTV is full of fun videos about science experiments to try at home (and even some jokes). You can submit your questions, too, and maybe a scientist will answer them in an episode.


2. The New Children’s Museum

Location: Downtown San Diego
Address: 200 W Island Ave, San Diego, CA 92101

A child climbs a ladder on an exhibit at The New Children's Museum, one of the best museums in San Diego for kids.
Photo courtesy of The New Children’s Museum

If you’re starting to see a pattern of great kid-friendly museums giving children lots of opportunities to learn through creative play, you’re correct!

The New Children’s Museum is another one of the best museums in San Diego for kids because it makes learning and sharpening critical thinking skills so much fun. This museum is known for its ever-changing exhibits.

The museum has fun arts and crafts options to keep kids busy and inspired. There’s a great clay studio where kids can get their creative hands dirty, or check out the Innovators LAB, where resident experts are on hand to guide children through design challenges and skill-building projects. The Paint Studio is fun for kids of all ages to paint the huge dragon sculpture to their heart’s content.

The whammock! is a huge hammock-style installation where kids can scramble up, down, and around while parents get a well-earned rest and sit down. Little ones will also enjoy the Sketch Aquarium, where fish you draw on paper come alive in a huge digital aquarium, and even the art on display can be touched and played with. 

Tip: This San Diego museum is located near many of the downtown San Diego hotels. If you stay in this popular part of town, it’s easy to include this children’s museum on a busy itinerary.

At-home resources: Virtual art experiences detail what the exhibits are about so that you can appreciate them even more before visiting. They also offer online educator resources, craft tutorials, and other downloads.


3. San Diego Natural History Museum

Location: Balboa Park
Address: 1788 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

My daughter on a scavenger hunt at San Diego Natural History Museum, a favorite San Diego museum for kids who are locals.
Photo credit: Katie Dillon

Known to locals as the NAT, this is one of the best museums in San Diego and a favorite of local and visiting kids.

What’s great about this museum is that children of all ages will get something out of it. We’ve been visiting for my daughter’s entire life, and I can tell you first-hand that you can enjoy and learn something new with each visit.

We love completing the scavenger hunts in Fossil Mysteries, watching the Foucault Pendulum swing, learning about Southern California’s unique habitats, and visiting the various fun exhibits.

If you’re a fan of creepy crawlies, head to the Vivarium in the basement, where you’ll meet local animals who are often in hiding in the real world, like centipedes, rattlesnakes, and even a Gila monster. Look out for the museum’s sparkling collection of gems and minerals on display throughout, or, from Spring 2024, you can enjoy an educational stroll along the museum’s outside Nature Trail.

I’ve actually had a chance to go behind the scenes at theNAT to see some of the over 8 million specimens in their collection and to find out more about how scientists design the museum’s exhibits. It’s fascinating yet important work they do for our community.

See also: Local Kids’ Guide to the San Diego Natural History Museum

Tip: It’s tempting to visit the Balboa Park museums and San Diego Zoo on the same day because they’re next door. If you can, split the visits into two days because it’s otherwise a long day for small kids (I speak from much experience).

At-home resources: theNAT has always offered a robust list of activities for families to be citizen scientists outside the museum. Check theNAT @ Home for ways to find nature in your backyard, learn about our region, find lesson plans, and find activities at home.


4. USS Midway Museum

Location: Downtown San Diego
Address: 910 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101

Kids on a field trip at USS Midway Museum, one of the reasons why it's a best children's museum in San Diego.
Photo courtesy of USS Midway Museum

The longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century is now a museum at the San Diego Embarcadero in downtown. You might assume this wouldn’t be a kid-friendly attraction, but the people who designed the USS Midway experience have done a wonderful job creating a hands-on attraction for younger visitors.

Admission includes a self-guided audio tour (they have a great Family Audio Tour for kids), but there are guides on board—some of whom actually served on the USS Midway—who are happy to answer kids’ questions about life on board the ship. 

TICKETS WITH NO RESERVATIONS

You can go straight to the gate with these discounted tickets for the USS Midway Museum.

At-home resources: You can watch virtual tours of the aircraft carrier and its flight deck. But, did you know that they offer a Little Skippers section online with activity downloads? You can even listen to the family audio tour online.

See also: Tips for Visiting the USS Midway and the USS Midway’s cookie recipe


5. Maritime Museum of San Diego

Location: Downtown San Diego
Address: 1492 N Harbor Dr, San Diego, CA 92101

Star of India ship docked on the Embarcadero against a blue sky at Maritime Museum of San Diego.
Photo credit: Katie Dillon

This museum has one of the largest collections of historic sea vessels, which is worth adding to your itinerary if you’re looking for things to do in San Diego with teens.

The collection includes fascinating exhibits showcasing maritime history, the fishing industry, and war on the seas, along with real frigates, swift boats, steam-powered vessels, and submarines.

There are even opportunities to ride aboard some of the museum’s ships through special tours (book in advance) — a one of a kind experience.

Tip: Visit the Maritime Museum of San Diego and the USS Midway Museum on the same day. They’re only a short walk apart.

At-home resources: Free videos and virtual lesson plans catered to grades 3-5 are available that focus on Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and the discovery of California.


6. San Diego Air & Space Museum

Location: Balboa Park
Address: 2001 Pan American Plaza, San Diego, CA 92101

The Spirit of St. Louis replica plan at San Diego Air & Space Museum.
Photo courtesy of San Diego Air & Space Museum

This museum in Balboa Park isn’t one of the children’s museums of San Diego, but it is absolutely child-friendly.

In addition to the original and full-size replica aircraft and spacecraft in the San Diego Air & Space Museum—like the actual Apollo 9 Command Module—there are also flight simulators and many hands-on interactive displays designed with younger visitors in mind.

You could easily spend hours here — especially if you decide to catch a movie in the 3D/4D Zable Theater.


7. San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Location: Balboa Park
Address: 1649 El Prado, San Diego, CA 92101

A model Amtrak train on a track in a display at San Diego Model Railroad Museum.
Photo courtesy of San Diego Model Railroad Museum

Another gem in Balboa Park, the San Diego Model Railroad Museum is a must-see for families with kids obsessed with trains.

Over 27,000 square feet of amazingly detailed model train layouts—complete with full towns and farms, tiny carnivals, and more—ensure hours of fun. A great bonus is that children 12 and under get free entry.

At-home resources: There’s no better place to learn how to build a model railroad. They’ve designed a virtual program for families who are up for the task, in addition to online crafts and videos.


8. San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum

Location: Escondido
Address: 320 N Broadway, Escondido, CA 92025

A little girl smiles while looking at a hedgehog held by a museum staff member.
Photo courtesy of San Diego Children’s Discovery Center

San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum is one of the best museums in San Diego for families with young children for two reasons. First, it’s inexpensive so that you can go a lot. And second, it’s hands-on in a way many museums are not.

Learning here is definitely rooted in play, and kids are encouraged to touch, imagine, explore, and experiment to learn more about the natural world, science, math, engineering, art, and history. There are many fun indoor and outdoor activities where kids can climb, play dress up, have water play, visit the Pollinator Garden, pet animals, take an art class, and more.

Children from the toddler years through grade school just love it.

At-home resources: This kids’ museum strives to provide families with information and expert advice through its Parenting On The Go virtual workshop series and activities posted on their blog.


9. Birch Aquarium at Scripps

Location: La Jolla
Address: 2300 Expedition Way, La Jolla, CA 92037

Girls try on explorer uniforms at Birch Aquarium at Scripps La Jolla Museum
Photo credit: Katie Dillon

Birch Aquarium at Scripps showcases the research of the world-renowned Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego through over 60 aquarium habitats, hands-on exhibits, an outdoor playground, and even a touch tide pool.

Go for a raised awareness of how our actions impact the environment, marvel at the over 3000 sea animals in residence, and learn about some of the equipment scientists use at sea. You’ll gaze at seahorses and a stunning wall of ocean coral, and witness cute baby penguins waddle around their new home.

The Aquarium is a must for any budding oceanographer. Don’t forget your camera, as views from Tide Pool Plaza over La Jolla Shores Beach are breathtaking.

At-home resources: Birch Aquarium’s opportunities for virtual learning are far too long to list, but check out its after-school programs, educational crafts, or even keep an eye on the action from home with the Penguin Cam, Seadragon Cam, and the Kelp Cam.

10. Living Coast Discovery Center

Location: Chula Vista
Address: 1000 Gunpowder Point Dr, Chula Vista, CA 91910

Photo credit: Katie Dillon

The Living Coast Discovery Center is a museum that I feel is often overlooked. It’s located in the San Diego Bay National Wildlife Refuge about 15 minutes south of Downtown.

They’re a zoo, aquarium, and museum all wrapped into one that teaches kids about the local flora and fauna in our coastal environment and why it’s important to care for it.

You can get up close with raptors and rays in the exhibits and by booking animal encounters. I also recommend walking the trails around the museum for pretty bay views and spotting plenty of local birds.


Save Money on Admission to Children’s Museums in San Diego

Sightseeing passes and special events make visiting children’s museums in San Diego easier and more affordable. 

Memberships

It’s far more economical to join your favorite children’s museum as a member. This grants you unlimited access to the museum year-round.

We hold the Balboa Park Explorer Pass, which includes multiple museums in Balboa Park. It pays for itself after just a few visits to this popular attraction.

Go City San Diego® Pass

I love the Go City San Diego pass. It’s a very popular sightseeing pass that gives you easier access to 50+ attractions in and around the city, will let you skip the lines entirely in many cases, and will help you save money on San Diego attractions, too. (We’re an affiliate of Go San Diego, so may be compensated if you purchase using our links to Go City.)

ticket icon

TWO WAYS TO SAVE ON GO CITY SAN DIEGO

Use promo code GOSDO5LJM to apply an extra 5% off ALL Go San Diego sightseeing passes when you buy through Go City! This discount stacks on top of sale rates! Also, check aResTravel, where All-Inclusive and Explorer Passes are currently cheaper.

(Pass has limited value for families at many attractions during Kids Free October in San Diego — we recommend individual tickets during this timeframe instead.)

Many people buy the pass because it’s a simple way to get discounted admission to multiple theme parks like SeaWorld® San Diego and Knott’s Berry Farm, plus hotspots like Belmont Park. You can also use it to visit the following San Diego museums:

  • San Diego Air and Space Museum
  • San Diego Art Institute
  • San Diego Automotive Museum
  • San Diego History Center
  • San Diego Museum of Art
  • San Diego Museum of Man
  • San Diego Natural History Museum
  • The Fleet Science Center
  • The New Children’s Museum™
  • USS Midway Museum
  • Whaley House
  • Living Coast Discovery Center
  • Mingei Museum
  • Model Railroad Museum
  • Museum of Contemporary Art (Downtown)
  • Museum of Making Music
  • Museum of Photographic Arts
  • Coronado Museum of History and Art

Various pass options are available in 1, 2, 3, 5, and 7-day increments. There’s also an Explorer pass that lets you choose a set number of attractions to visit.

Kids Free San Diego

One of the best times for families to visit San Diego is during October, thanks to the annual Kids Free San Diego promotion.

Details are usually released during the prior summer, but kids can go free to over 50 museums, attractions, theme parks, and restaurants throughout the county.

Museum Month in February

You’ll need to pick up a pass at participating libraries or Hilton Hotels in San Diego that will grant you half-off admission to over 60 museums. The details are usually released in January.

What are your favorite children’s museums in San Diego?

See also: Free Things to Do in San Diego

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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